Is housing the homeless a form of emergency management? Portland City Commissioner Dan Ryan believes it is, which is why his office said using the former Sgt. Jerome F. Sears U.S. Army Reserve Center for a managed shelter does not violate the conditions of its deed.
"The city of Portland declared a housing crisis in 2015, and the COVID-19 global pandemic exacerbated our existing crises," said Ryan's office.
Ryan announced on Nov. 22 that the Southwest Portland property — also known as the Sears Armory — was selected as the third Safe Rest Village site. Up to 60 sleeping pods will be placed on a portion of its parking lot, along with sanitary and other facilities. The buildings on the property also may provide limited uses, but will not be lived in.
"I am thrilled to announce this additional Safe Rest Village location," Ryan said in the announcement. "Our community engagement team will continue working to build relationships between housed and unhoused neighbors. … It's time to say 'Yes In My Backyard.'"
The Department of Defense donated the surplus property to Portland in 2012. The deed requires that it be used "primarily for the purpose of providing emergency management services," which it defined as including but not limited to: "emergency operations planning and support; risk assessment and mitigation; public outreach, training and education; emergency preparedness and response; decision making and policy planning; first responders training and exercises; logistics management; and recovery and rebuilding."
"As part of our due diligence for the Sears site — and all Safe Rest Village sites — we review deed restrictions and have reviewed this site accordingly. The use of the Sears location for a Safe Rest Village is consistent with its intended use," Ryan's office said.
The Sears Armory is located near Multnomah Village. Multnomah Neighborhood Association President Moses Ross said he has already heard from area residents who support and oppose the plan. According to Ross, city program officials have promised to brief the association board meeting on Dec. 7 meeting and the membership meeting on Dec. 14. Both will be conducted online.
"It's very important that residents have the opportunity to weigh in on this. It took all of us by surprise and there's a lot of questions that need to be answered," said Ross, a small business owner.
The property was used as an indoor temporary homeless shelter between November 2015 and February 2016. Then-Mayor Charlie Hales promised neighbors it would only but used overnight for six months before it opened. Some area residents welcomed it, while others opposed it. There is no deadline for the end of the Safe Rest Village project.
Housing the homeless is not exactly what area residents expected when the city first obtained the property at 2730 S.W. Multnomah Blvd., however. Ten years ago, plans were announced to covert it into a heavy equipment staging area. In January 2011, then-Mayor Sam Adams told neighbors that basing such equipment there would help the west side of Portland recover faster from a natural or man-made disaster.
Then and now, all of the city's heavy equipment is stored on the east side of the Willamette River. Bulldozers, dump trucks and other pieces of equipment would not be able to cross the Willamette River if the bridges collapse during an earthquake.
But that transfer never happened. No significant changes have been made at the building or adjacent parking lot since the first announcement. Since then, the Portland Police Bureau and Portland Fire & Rescue have occasionally held training exercises there. The Portland Water Bureau has stored some trailers there. And the Portland Bureau of Transportation is currently using a portion of the parking lot as a staging area for the Southwest Capitol Highway Improvement Project, which includes some seismic improvements to the road that runs through Multnomah Village. Those uses will continue.
"The Safe Rest Villages team is working with other city bureaus — the Portland Bureau of Transportation, the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management, and the Portland Water Bureau — to ensure that their uses of the Sears site for emergency management and preparedness is not impacted," said Ryan's office.
A master plan for a Westside Auxiliary Emergency Operations Center was completed in June 2013. Its cost was estimated at around $11.4 million. Detailed feasibility studies were started to finalize the plan for council approval. A contract with MCA Architects to manage the project was signed in June 2016.
But in March 2017, the City Council authorized a new contract to study adding a Portland Fire & Rescue training center to the facility. It would replace a fire bureau training center in the Clinton Triangle in Southeast Portland. That put the rest of the planning on hold.
Then, in January 2019, Mayor Ted Wheeler's office told the Portland Tribune the city did not have the money to pay for any major changes and nothing might ever happen there unless voters approve a public safety bond.
Former Commissioner Randy Leonard successfully introduced and championed such a measure during the November 2010 general election. Among other things, the $72 million bond paid for a new emergency communications center, new fire stations and equipment, and a new digital radio system. The council has not discussed referring a similar measure to the ballot, however.
Ryan had hoped to site and open six managed Safe Rest Villages to house the homeless by the end of the year. Each will have communal amenities including shared kitchens, restrooms, showers, garbage, recycling and laundry facilities. The sites will be staffed around the clock, with case management and supportive services offered at each site. They will be financed with federal American Rescue Plan Act funds.
Finding suitable unused or underused property has been difficult, however. The only other current sites include a portion of the parking lot at TriMet's Menlo Park "Park & Ride," located at 12202 E. Burnside St., and a stretch of vacant PBOT and Oregon Department of Transportation property in the 2300 block of Southwest Naito Parkway. Another announced site in Southeast Portland was dropped after it was determined to be in a wetland.
Negotiations over using a portion of the parking lot at the Portland Expo Center, which is owned by Metro, also have broken down.
More information on the Safe Rest Villages project can be found at www.portland.gov/ryan/locations-safe-rest-villages.
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